Crystal Ball: 2017-18 NBA Awards Predictions
With the NBA season inside-your-jersey close, The Crossover asked its writers to give their awards predictions for the 2017–18 season.
The MVP races features some familiar faces (hello, LeBron and Steph), but there’s plenty of new names also in the running for awards this season. Can Rudy Gobert take home his first Defensive Player of the Year title? Will one of the Clippers’ many new guards win Sixth Man of the Year? And will Dennis Smith Jr. steal the spotlight from Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons and claim top rookie honors?
We asked our writers to predict who will take home the hardware. Check out our predictions for the 2017-18 season below.
Most Valuable Player
Lee Jenkins: LeBron James, Cavaliers. In each of the past four years, someone other than LeBron James has won MVP, even though in all of those four years it was generally accepted that James was actually the best player. Come winter, the regularly scheduled hype train circles the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, until spring dawns and the refrain echoes: “Oh, I guess LeBron is still better.” It is a strange dynamic. MVP is the NBA’s most significant individual award, yet James has somehow transcended the trophy. His candidacy is too boring, too obvious. But Westbrook and Harden now have superstar sidekicks, like Steph Curry/Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard is nursing a troublesome thigh injury. James, sans Kyrie Irving, may have to be the choice this time.
Ben Golliver: Stephen Curry, Warriors. How is it that Stephen Curry, the man who received every single first-place MVP vote in 2016, has only the 10th–best odds, according to one oddsmaker, of taking home the 2018 trophy? This feels like a classic case of the NBA intelligentsia outsmarting itself. After all, Curry is a consensus top-four player, he’s virtually guaranteed to play for the league’s best team and, as coach Steve Kerr noted this week, he happens to be smack in the middle of his prime.
Some forecasters are worried that Curry and Kevin Durant will split Golden State’s share of the votes, or that voters will regard Durant as the Warriors’ top candidate, or that one-man armies like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo will have better individual stories, or that Russell Westbrook and James Harden will put up better individual numbers. All fair concerns. But Curry is a very compelling (fake) dark horse candidate because he’s the central force of the league’s best offense, he’s the league’s best shooter and a perennial 50/40/90 candidate, he’s the most popular player on the league’s most dominant team (Durant’s nightmare PR summer only widened the gap), and he’s become remarkably durable after early-career ankle issues (he’s missed an average of 3.2 games over the past five seasons).
MVP voters do tend to punish superteams: LeBron James didn’t win in 2011 and no Warriors player finished among 2017’s top five. However, voters came back around to pay James the respect he deserved in 2012 and 2013, and it will be hard for anyone to deny Golden State an MVP winner if the Warriors rack up 70 wins and the rest of the league is struggling to reach 60. If a backlash to Westbrook’s stats-based 2016 MVP case does emerge, Curry is perfectly positioned to benefit because he checks every box: winning, narrative, stats, advanced stats, intangibles, memorable moments, personality and impact. Sleep on Curry’s MVP candidacy at your own risk.
Andrew Sharp: Stephen Curry, Warriors. A month ago my pick would've been Kawhi, but his quad injury is lingering while the Rockets look poised to blitz the West for the No. 2 seed, and that's enough to give me pause. Instead, give me Steph. He's the most valuable player on the best team the league has ever seen, and this shouldn't be all that complicated.
Yet it is complicated, obviously. After winning unanimous MVP two years ago and ultimately falling apart in the Finals, two years of passive aggressive Curry skepticism gave way to a nation of critics openly second-guessing his talent and resenting his success, even among certain superstars. All of that criticism was dumb, but some of it stuck. For the past year or two it hasn't been cool to discuss how incredible Curry has been. Even Steve Kerr finished the NBA Finals talking about the value of Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
There are two ways this could play out from here. On one hand, it wouldn't be surprising if Curry never won another MVP. He's got too much help to make a compelling case, he's already won the award twice, and the skepticism around the league is still too pervasive.
On the other hand, maybe this is the year of the backlash to Curry backlash, where everyone realizes that he's the most valuable weapon in basketball. And as the Warriors put together the most dominant four-year run in NBA history, maybe it becomes cool and smart to state what's always been obvious: None of this is possible without Steph.
Rob Mahoney: LeBron James, Cavs. The setup for this season feels like the kind of opportunity LeBron would relish. A star teammate requesting to leave his well-constructed conference powerhouse is not a slight James could take lightly. One could imagine James feeling as if the world—and a certain ex-teammate—could stand to be reminded of what he’s capable of. On top of that, Isaiah Thomas’s extended absence will demand more of LeBron than before, albeit in ways he could clearly deliver. This award often boils down to how much James cares to win it. When he has a ready-made contender playing the long game for a return to the Finals, vying for the MVP might seem needless. But if he has something to prove, we could see LeBron again meld ridiculous efficiency with the extraordinary excess of superstar production.
Rohan Nadkarni: LeBron James, Cavs. Will James play in enough games to win this award? That’s what the MVP race could come down to. The King usually takes his fair share of breaks during the regular season, and rightfully so, considering James has played over 50,000 minutes in his storied career. But with the NBA’s new resting rules, James may play in a few more contests this season. And with the added motivation of an insane summer—Kyrie wanting out, contenders loading up, Draymond running his mouth—this could be the year James returns to the MVP mountaintop. LeBron, the best basketball player in the world, hasn’t won MVP in four seasons. That has to bother him on some level, right? James knows how hard it will be to beat the Warriors in a potential finals rematch, so perhaps he looks at the MVP race as another way to pad his legacy.
Jeremy Woo: Kevin Durant, Warriors. The argument that Kevin Durant and Steph Curry will steal MVP votes from one another until the end of time (or until someone breaks up the marriage) is a popular one. But I suspect the KD we saw dominate in the Finals, completely comfortable in the Warriors’ system and making a difference on both ends of the floor will be present once again. New star pairings are set to alter the landscape, but what’s to say 70-ish wins and a scoring title won’t get it done for Durant? Neither of those things is out of the question, and yes, that’s extremely scary. Here’s hedging that Year Two in the Bay is even more fruitful, and that KD can delete all his burner accounts and let himself live. (By the way, this is Kevin Durant).
Rookie of the Year
Jenkins: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. The team will be mediocre, the scoring average will be modest and the headlines will be made for all the wrong reasons. But voters watch the games and they’ll see a culture-changing point guard who manipulates the tempo and the defense, inventing open shots and turning average players into productive ones. The Lakers need more snipers to take advantage of Ball’s passing skills, but he’ll make them fast and fun. In ’87-88, Mark Jackson averaged 10.6 assists per game for the Knicks in his first season out of St. John’s, a rookie record. Ball probably can’t reach that mark, not with these Lakers, but he eventually will.
Golliver: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. This award should come down to two skilled playmakers who will enjoy major minutes and leading offensive roles: Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons. While Simmons is bigger, a year older and lucky enough to play with a franchise center (when healthy) in Philadelphia, Ball is set up to make an immediate impact in L.A.
The UCLA product joins a Lakers roster that is geared to play his preferred up-and-down style and that is essentially designed around his distributing ability. While young athletes like Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma are all seeking to run with him in transition, Ball will also benefit from the presence of veteran center Brook Lopez, who represents a stable source of half-court offense, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who can take on the toughest backcourt defensive match-ups.
L.A. will likely finish well outside the West’s playoff picture, but Ball could potentially rank among the league’s top assist men if he stays healthy and plays as many minutes as expected. He will also come out of the gate with significant buzz thanks to his father’s incessant chirping and his own strong showing at Las Vegas Summer League. Finally, Ball’s Rookie of the Year candidacy will get a bump from sheer visibility, as the Lakers are set to make an absurd number of national television appearances. Although he might fall short of “Phenomenon” status as a rookie, Ball will surely turn heads and generate plenty of headlines.
Sharp: Dennis Smith Jr., Mavericks. The rookie class is loaded with potential stars, but almost all of them have weaknesses that will limit them in Year One. Ben Simmons and De'Aaron Fox can't shoot, while Lonzo Ball's shooting is quietly an issue of its own, and his defense could be horrific. Jonathan Isaac is going to be elite on defense but his offense will take longer. Jayson Tatum probably won't be consistent enough to earn regular minutes for a contending Celtics team. Josh Jackson will be a work-in-progress on both ends of the floor in Phoenix.
You know who will be awesome, though? Three players: Bogdan Bogdanovic in Sacramento, John Collins in Atlanta, and Dennis Smith in Dallas. Bogdan is a rookie in name only—he's 25 years old—and Collins is on the Hawks during a lost season. So give me Smith, the most explosive player in the class, who's about to get a ton of opportunities running the Rick Carlisle pick-and-roll and dunking his way into America's heart.
Mahoney: Ben Simmons, 76ers. Simmons is unlike the vast majority of rookies in that NBA opponents legitimately do not know how to guard him. His very presence creates problems; to have a special playmaker this tall and this strong demands all kinds of uncomfortable cross-matches, pushing defenses well outside the comfort of their typical scheme. The turnovers will flow freely and the shooting percentages will fluctuate dramatically. Such is the way of the rookie. But along the way, Simmons will storm his way into the paint in a way that many opponents will be powerless to stop.
Nadkarni: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. I’m a Lonzo believer, and the Lakers won’t have to be good, only exciting for Ball to start talk of L.A.’s comeback. There’s so much noise surrounding this rookie class. Ball’s dad. Markelle Fultz’s shot. Ben Simmons’s debut. People hardly talk about how talented this class actually is. Ball will be given the keys to the Lakers‘ offense, and he should have the most freedom of any top-five pick. Without great pressure on him to win, Ball will also be able to play through his mistakes. With Luke Walton likely counting on him to make things happen, Ball should rack up enough numbers to take home Rookie of the Year.
Woo: Ben Simmons, 76ers. It’ll certainly be an interesting year for rookies, and I like Simmons over Lonzo Ball here in what is technically his rookie season based on what ought to be a gentler learning curve. Simmons spent a year studying up and gets to spend the majority of his time at the playmaking controls on an improving team in a softer conference. Although Simmons’s jump shooting woes will be nitpicked all season, his size and knack for transition play will let him score enough to balance out useful assist and rebound totals that will be there from day one.
Sixth Man of the Year
Jenkins: Eric Gordon, Rockets. There hasn’t been a repeat winner since Detlef Schrempf and, yes, Kevin McHale. Gordon lapped up his first season in Mike D’Antoni’s system, sinking a career-high 3.3 three-pointers per game, at a 37.2% clip. Expect him to get even more open shots now because it’s not just James Harden setting him up. He’ll have Chris Paul feeding him as well. The Rockets employ two of the league’s best playmakers and Gordon should be the primary beneficiary, provided he stays upright on the perimeter. Health has always been a question for Gordon, but last year he logged 75 games and discovered the sixth-man role. It suits him well.
Golliver: Lou Williams, Clippers. Williams was sensational in 2016-17, posting a career-high 17.5 PPG on a career-best 59.3 True Shooting Percentage. He finished third in the Sixth Man race despite being traded midseason and splitting votes with teammate Eric Gordon. A classic candidate for this award due to his dependable volume scoring, shot creation, three-point range and highlight-making style, Williams joins a Clippers roster that needs a second-unit offensive linchpin following a major summer shake-up.
The 30-year-old guard is firmly in his prime, and he clearly benefits from the league’s stylistic shifts towards pace, space, spread lineups and offense-first approaches. With more room to work one-on-one and fewer people nagging him about his one-way game, the 2015 Sixth Man of the Year award is even better positioned to win it again in 2018. There’s a decent chance Williams pushes his scoring and usage to even greater heights this season, especially if L.A. finds itself scrambling to cover for injury-prone starters like Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley.
Sharp: Will Barton, Nuggets. The Nuggets will need the help in the backcourt, and Barton will be there all year to provide buckets off the bench. If he can stay healthy and the Nuggets improve as much as expected, Barton gets the slight edge over Eric Gordon in Houston or Greg Monroe in Milwaukee.
Mahoney: Andre Iguodala, Warriors. One of these years, the voters will get this one right. There’s more to being a bench player than scoring, even if the history of this award wouldn’t suggest it. Iguodala does it all. When Golden State needs a dedicated wing defender, Steve Kerr turns to Iguodala. If a situation calls for the Warriors’ best lineups, they build around Iguodala as a pivot point. His playmaking is the catalyst between brilliant scorers, his ball-handling a vehicle for the most unstoppable offense in the league. No bench player in the league is better than Iguodala, and none is more important. So why bother voting for anyone else?
Nadkarni: Milos Teodosic, Clippers. I’m all in on Teodosic, the slick-passing Euro rookie who is actually 30 years old. Teodosic’s passing is an art form, and he will keep the lights on in Lob City with frequent setups for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. It’s unclear how good the Clippers will be this season, but they definitely have the potential to be a League Pass favorite. Teodosic is a big reason why. If he racks up the assists and hits enough threes, he’ll compete for this award. Jamal Crawford is running on fumes. Andre Iguodala is getting up there. And Eric Gordon could be counted on less with the addition of Chris Paul in Houston. The circumstances are breaking right for Milos.
Woo: Tristan Thompson, Cavs. We’ll see how long the Kevin-Love-at-center experiment lasts, but Thompson is in great position to log his usual heavy, meaningful minutes for a very good Cavs team over the course of the year. Yeah, he was bad in the Finals, but remains one of the league’s premier energy bigs and a crucial cog for a Cleveland team that runs deeper, but remains thin up front. He will be productive, he will be nasty, and the Cavs will win the East again. Yes, this award usually goes to a random guard with a high shot volume... but we can dream.
Most Improved Player
Jenkins: Brandon Ingram, Lakers. This pick is closely entwined with the Rookie of the Year winner, pushing Ingram over Myles Turner, a strong candidate given Indiana’s dearth of scorers. A 6’9” wing with a Durantian physique, Ingram averaged 9.4 points and shot 29.4% from three last season, well below expectation for the second overall pick in the ’16 draft and supposedly the safest choice. At times, especially early, Ingram looked deferential and aloof. He also didn’t have anybody to make rookie life easier for him. Enter Ball, who will pass ahead to him in transition and kick out to him for three. All the Lakers will benefit from Ball, but none more than Ingram.
Golliver: Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers. All signs point to Jusuf Nurkic enjoying a monster season in Portland: He’s set to start, he’s entrenched as a lead scoring option, he’s playing with two lead guards who value his contributions, he’s angling for a possible max contract, he’s healthy, and he’s significantly lighter after a summer of hard work. Now, contrast that with his situation last season. In Denver, he was fighting with Nikola Jokic for starts, minutes and touches, and he was stuck without a real point guard to set him up. Then, following a long-awaited trade to Portland, he enjoyed a mini-breakout only to suffer a leg injury that sidelined him for most of the playoffs.
Nurkic’s strong closing push helped the Blazers secure the West’s final playoff spot, and it put him on the national map for the first time during his career. The Bosnian center enters this season with real momentum, and a similar late-season explosion in 2015-16 helped set up Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2017 Most Improved Player campaign.
Sharp: D'Angelo Russell, Nets. The criteria for this award is anyone's guess, but given the last three winners—Giannis Antetokounmpo, C.J. McCollum, Jimmy Butler—it appears we're setting on one point: the Most Improved Player is PRETTY GOOD. We're not talking surprising improvements among bench players (Joffrey Lauvergne in San Antonio!) or a mid-career renaissance from an also-ran starter (Pacers' Victor Oladipo!). So with that in mind, I was wrestling with three former Lakers lottery picks: Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and D'Angelo Russell.
Ingram should be better this year, and he's got a chance to land in the Butler/Giannis category eventually. But the Lakers are still a mess, and it will be hard for him to stand out in the middle of another 50-loss season. Similar logic applies to Randle. His numbers should be better than Ingram, but his impact on winning is questionable. Also, his ceiling's lower, so that may undermine some of the progress.
Russell has a much better shot at making some meaningful progress in the East. The Nets have no incentive to tank, and Russell will have the keys to the offense, with more structure around him than he ever found in Los Angeles. Here's to betting that he'll open some eyes over the final few months of the season to steal the win here.
Mahoney: Rodney Hood, Jazz. Utah’s offense, in the absence of Gordon Hayward and George Hill, has to turn somewhere. Who better to fill that void than Hood? The 24-year-old wing has teased over his first three NBA seasons with tantalizing displays of shot creation. A little consistency (and some better health) could change everything. Hood clearly has the talent. Soon, he’ll have the ball in his hands for a team that very much needs him to take the next step.
Nadkarni: Gary Harris, Nuggets. I thought Harris’s teammate, Nikola Jokic, should have won this award last season. But with Jokic now on most people’s radars, Harris could be the next Nugget on the verge of a breakout. Denver should be frisky in the West this year, with the addition of Paul Millsap giving them one of the most skilled frontlines in the Association. Jokic’s passing and Millsap’s spacing should make Harris’s life a lot easier, giving him room to operate alongside teammates more than willing to share the ball. Harris shot a blistering 42% from three last season, and if he comes anywhere close to maintaining that pace, he will become a serious problem for opposing defenses.
Woo: Clint Capela, Rockets. Playing on the receiving end opposite big man-friendly Chris Paul should be catnip for Capela, who managed a significant step forward from 2015–16 to last season while playing about five more minutes per game. Now 23 and the Rockets’ best bet to anchor the inside of a suddenly intriguing defense, expect another uptick in playing time and an opportunity to average a double-double. Alongside Paul and James Harden, working comfortably in a system that creates extra possessions like clockwork, Capela stands to benefit the most of anyone on the Rockets and is a fun breakout candidate at the very least.
Defensive Player of the Year
Jenkins: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. From 1992 through 2014, traditional post players dominated this award, the only exceptions being Gary Payton and Ron Artest. In the past three years, with versatile wings blanketing almost every position, it shifted to Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. But Rudy Gobert has been right behind them, the NBA’s best rim protector and shot blocker. With all of Leonard’s scoring responsibilities in San Antonio, it’s hard to imagine he can still be the league’s stickiest defender. So the race likely comes down to Green and Gobert. Last year, the nod went to Green, though many advanced stats favored Gobert. Rudy’s team is obviously worse, with the Gordon Hayward defection to Boston, but he’ll stifle just the same.
Golliver: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Admittedly, part of picking Rudy Gobert comes down to a belief that voters will decide to spread the love around. Last year, the Jazz center finished second to Draymond Green, who himself had been runner-up to Kawhi Leonard in each of the two previous seasons. Gobert is next in line to receive the baton because he captains an elite Utah defense, he posts strong block and rebound stats, his defensive advanced stats are always off the charts, and his ability to dissuade, alter, contest and swat shots is easily observable to diehard and casual viewers alike.
Gordon Hayward’s summer departure will likely hurt the Jazz’s record and offensive efficiency, but it sets up the franchise to play to Gobert’s strengths and it sets up Gobert to receive full credit for their success. GM Dennis Lindsey spent the off-season adding a litany of hard-nosed types to complement his massive center, and coach Quin Snyder surely understands that continuing to prioritize defense will be Utah’s best hope at remaining in the West’s playoff picture. Gobert will only be more important to his team this season, which is saying a lot given his off-the-charts impact last year.
Sharp: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Only two other defensive players affect the game the way Gobert does. And since Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green have won this award the past two years, it may be time for the Stifle Tower to get some love. If he stays healthy and his defense is dominant enough to keep the Jazz in the playoff race, everyone else is coming in second.
Mahoney: Draymond Green, Warriors. When in doubt, give it to the league’s best defender. The speed and skill of the NBA game leaves bigs with almost no room for error; as soon as the ball-handler turns a corner into open space, the rotating big is expected to corral all possibilities across a wide swath of real estate. No player covers the full scope as effectively as Green. It’s not his foot speed that separates him, though Green is certainly quick enough. It isn’t his height or wingspan, either, both of which would be dwarfed by other players at his position. What most distinguishes Green is the way his brain works—reading, anticipating, and reacting within a fraction of a second. His best defensive performances are works of legitimate genius.
Nadkarni: Draymond Green, Warriors. This award should belong to Green as long as the Warriors’ Death Lineup exists. Green makes all of that work by guarding every position on the floor. He's a once-in-a-generation talent on defense. Draymond will bang against your biggest body down in the post, or erase your best perimeter scorer from the top. He’s the unquestioned engine for a championship-level defense. In the small-ball era, I don’t think you can put a rim-protecting center in the same league as Green.
Woo: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Gordon Hayward’s departure should give us an even better sense of just how meaningful Gobert’s defensive contributions are to his team. Changes and all, the Jazz should remain among the league’s top defensive units. Gobert will lead the league in blocks again and stay among the elite rebounders, and he’ll continue to scare guys away from the basket on a nightly basis. The last few playoff spots in the West are wide open, and Utah’s continuity and defined style of play should benefit them even if they struggle to score (they almost definitely will). But that’s where the big man comes in. Gobert should finally take home his first Defensive Player honors in what’s become an annual three-horse race with Draymond and Kawhi.
Coach of the Year
Jenkins: Brad Stevens, Celtics. Even though Hayward played for him at Butler, and Irving wanted to play for him in Boston, this won’t be an easy job. The Celtics chipped away at their hardscrabble identity this summer with the exodus of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley. They are far more skilled, though, and Stevens is a master at putting gifted scorers in motion. If anyone can blend Irving’s solo act into a team structure, while keeping Hayward and Al Horford integral to the offense, it’s Stevens. The Celtics lost plenty of leadership in their locker room, but they retained enough on their sideline.
Golliver: Brad Stevens, Celtics. This candidacy writes itself: “Danny Ainge gave him a whole new roster and Brad Stevens put it all together to make the Celtics an overachieving contender yet again.” Start bracing now for the Boston media hype machine to dole out this narrative nonstop for the next six months.
Despite the inevitable oversaturation to come, Stevens is worthy of the hype. He’s consistently set up key players for career years, found unorthodox lineup combinations that magically work, and milked maximum value from fringe guys. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are two stars who could easily ascend to new heights under Stevens this year, and his system will get tons of credit, and deservedly so, if the Celtics manage to remain near the top of the East despite losing five of their top seven guys by minutes played during a busy off-season.
The Celtics might have trouble blowing away expectations—given that they were a No. 1 seed last year and landed Irving in one of the biggest deals of the summer—but reaching 53-55 wins with a reshaped roster could be enough to earn the well-respected Stevens his first Coach of the Year award.
Sharp: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Watch this video and tell me you'd rather vote for Brad Stevens or Gregg Popovich:
If the Heat finish in the top half of the East, Spoelstra gets the coach of the year award that he probably should've won last year, too.
Mahoney: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. The premise that made the Heat one of the most surprising teams in the league last season remains unchanged: Miami is poised to outperform the talent level of its roster. Spoelstra is a critical reason why. It can be difficult to determine where Heat culture ends and Spoelstra’s influence begins. That, in a way, is what makes his contributions so valuable. Few coaches in the league work in such perfect concert with a larger organizational philosophy. In Spoelstra’s case, that manifests in pushing players beyond their career standards, elevating the group on the sum of personal bests.
Nadkarni: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Spo obviously deserved this award last season, and I need to make at least one homer pick after passing on Bam Adebayo for rookie honors. There is a serious path for Spo to win this award, however. The Heat don’t exactly have someone who you would call a star, even if Dion Waiters is calling himself one. Without the top-end talent he’s grown accustomed to, Spo still coaxed a top-five defense from this team last year, and an offense that was top-ten after the All-Star break. If the Heat prove their 30–11 run to finish 2017 wasn’t a fluke, Spo should finally be rewarded for the job he’s doing with a group of cast-offs.
Woo: Brad Stevens, Celtics. In keeping with tradition, I decided I’m just gonna keep picking Stevens until he actually wins this award. It’s gonna happen eventually. Although the Celtics won’t emerge fully-formed, meshing new players and developing talent presents an appealing task that could and probably should lead to 50-plus wins in a crappy East. People sure do laud Stevens’ wizardry when it comes to both the on-court details and locker room balance, but it’s mostly because those things are true. This feels like his year.